These days there's as much interest in what happens below ground with a growing crop as what happens above ground. And the below-ground work is offering some companies new opportunities for business, and may offer you enhanced performance at harvest.
We covered the concepts a year ago in a feature we called Ag of the future. The idea that companies are turning to what one author once termed the "secret life of plants" to unlock greater yield potential by improving the biome where plants grow. It's a hot topic and one that a new company - BioConsortia - is developing a novel approach that offers another way to enhance productivity.
Heading up the company is Marcus Meadows-Smith who's last company, AgraQuest, was sold to Bayer Cropscience for $500 million. What's a creative entrepreneur to do? In March 2014 he created this new company based on a novel way to allow healthy plants to affiliate themselves with microbes of their own choosing.
You read that right, Meadows-Smith explains that often the work of plant breeders has focused on the genetics by environment interaction - called g x e. "We're working the the interaction of genetics by environment by microbiome," he says. "We're working to understand how the plant interacts with its environment."
This below-ground view doesn't aim to identify a single biological tool, but rather the right community of biological organisms that can help a specific plant do better. Plants, it turns out, interact with the microbiome environment and what happens in your soil can impact plant performance. It's an area of science that's still relatively new, but what BioConsortia has done is look at determining what microbiota actually work to help a plant, and what works to detract from plant performance.
"Soil is a microbial community," Meadow-Smith says. "If the soil has a low amount of microbes that are useful to corn that could impact productivity, increasing the population of positive microbes to corn in the soil that can have an impact."
In fact, the company just celebrated its first anniversary, and it also has completed successful trials of this concept in corn and wheat. It plans on doing soybean trials in 2015 in Latin America and Europe.
BioConsortia has developed a system for identifying the colonies of microbes that can help boost crop productivity. Using DNA identification techniques and a large number of soil samples the company has been able to develop microbe packages that provide for enhanced crop performance. They've also learned a lot about corn phenotypes too.
"The plant influences the microbe populations in the soil," he explains. "We wanted to identify the most positive microbes that the plant associated with and provide more to enhance plant productivity."
The key was to develop the smallest number of microbes - remember there are millions - that could deliver the highest impact. "We are selecting the microbial team for the individual plant," Meadow-Smith says. "We match that team to the correct phenotype."
That means custom seed treatments for specific hybrid lines of corn, for example. BioConsortia has developed a system for rapid identification of those "teams" of microbes. As the business evolves, the company could work with seed companies as hybrids or varieties are being developed so a custom microbial seed treatment package is ready when that new seed comes to market.
Meadow-Smith reminds the reader that a crop grows in a hostile environment where fungus, insects and bacteria are out to stop plant success. This microbial team approach would offer a defensive posture for the plant, providing a healthier environment for root development.
"This is a lower cost development process too," Meadow-Smith says. "It takes less time and money to develop products for market than with conventional products." In a presentation shared with Farm Industry News, Meadow-Smith shows that a GM trait would take 12 to 13 years, a crop protection product about 10 years and a biopesticide in seven years or less. The BioConsortia approach can take less than five years with a much lower cost.
This new view of microbial treatment development - the team approach - offers potential for innovation as well. "We can look at a range of stresses and work to develop packages to counter them, whether the focus is abiotic stress or other key traits like fertilizer use," Meadow-Smith says.
The company can work on "generalist" team microbe packages or targeted packages for high-performance hybrids. It's a new area of science you'll be hearing more about in the future. You can learn more by visiting bioconsortia.com.